Tag Archives: Magnolia Bridge

Failure to Report: A pattern of secrecy by major oil train hauler puts public at risk

Repost from Sightline

Failure to Report

A pattern of secrecy by major oil train hauler puts public at risk.

By Eric de Place (@Eric_deP) and Deric Gruen on April 10, 2015 at 11:19 am

The first commuters were just beginning to trickle over the Magnolia Bridge near downtown Seattle as the short summer night was warming to gray. Probably none of them realized just how narrowly they escaped disaster that morning.

Below them, a BNSF locomotive pulling 97 tank cars—each laden with at least 27,000 gallons of crude oil from the Bakken formation of North Dakota—came to a halt under the Magnolia Bridge in Seattle. Three cars had derailed. It was July 24th of 2014.

The time was 1:50 AM.

What happened next—or more precisely, what didn’t happen—has come to define what appears to be a pattern of secrecy and poor communication by BNSF, troubling habits that put lives in the Northwest at risk. For example, three years earlier when a BNSF hazardous substance train derailed on a Puget Sound beach near Tacoma, the railroad was unresponsive to emergency officials for nearly four hours. Even then, communication lines were so poor that the railroad’s subsequent actions put the first responding firefighters directly into harm’s way for no purpose.

Early Morning: BNSF Downplays the Risk

Within five minutes of the Magnolia Bridge derailment, the BNSF response team was on site, according to the company spokesman. (The derailment happened less than a hundred yards from the railway’s Interbay Railyard.) The team determined, apparently without consulting public authorities, that there was no safety risk and that they did not need assistance.

By 3:11 AM, BNSF dispatch had notified the Washington State Department of Ecology, informing state officials there were no hazardous materials involved, even though crude oil is unambiguously considered a hazardous material. BNSF also said there was no risk to life and safety, and there was no potential for either. This despite the risk of oil spill from the notoriously leak-prone tank cars on the train, and despite the fact that Bakken crude has a noted tendency to explode catastrophically.

Oil train derailment in Magnolia neighborhood of Seattle, July 24, 2014 (2), by Hayley Farless, WEC intern

Seattle Awakens, Does Not Like What it Sees

By 5:44 AM, the Seattle Times had posted a story up about the incident, though some reports suggest neither local authorities nor the Department of Ecology were aware that an oil train had derailed. Sometime during the six o’clock hour, the City of Seattle’s Director of Emergency Management became aware of the incident, apparently after hearing a news broadcast, rather than receiving an emergency management notification. By 6:54 AM the Seattle Fire Department learned of the incident via a 911 call placed from a nearby business, but emergency responders had still heard nothing directly from BNSF.

The Fire Department, clearly concerned, deployed 19 firefighters, including a hazardous materials team.

At 7:30 am, more than five hours after the incident, the Department of Ecology finally learned that the derailed cars reported hours earlier did, in fact, contain hazardous material—a particularly volatile form of crude oil—-one that could, in fact, pose a risk.

The source of the notification? Not BNSF.

It was officials at the Tesoro oil refinery in Anacortes, the train’s destination, who alerted the state. Like the fire department, Ecology deployed staff to oversee precautionary measures, including clean-up preparation and a containment boom near stormwater drains that lead to Puget Sound.

Hours after the original incident, a coal train passed by the askew oil cars, a moment illustrative of the perilous concentration of fossil fuels running through Seattle.


A Pattern of Failing to Report

The mishap and subsequent failure to report in Seattle was not an isolated incident. In March 2015, staff at the Utilities and Transportation Commission recommended that BNSF be cited for 700 violations spanning 14 incidents from November 2014 to February 2015. The failures related specifically to Washington’s requirement to report spills within 30 minutes, which BNSF failed 14 out of 16 times during this period.

How late was BNSF in reporting? Here are few examples provided by the Department of Ecology:

  • November 5, 2014: A rail tank car of Bakken crude oil arrived at the BP oil refinery in Ferndale with staining down the body of the car to the wheels and with several trailing cars also stained. Measurements suggest the car lost 1,611 gallons of oil somewhere along the route. Ecology was not notified for month and a half, on January 21, 2015.
  • January 12, 2015: Bakken oil rail cars were observed in Vancouver, Washington with oil staining. Approximately seven cars had leaked an estimated 5 gallons each. Ecology was notified of the incident by BNSF two weeks later, on January 23. BNSF claimed the oil evaporated during transit and thus no oil reached the ground or water during transit.
  • January 13, 2015: Bakken crude rail cars in Auburn, Washington were seen with oil staining, after six cars leaked an estimated 1 gallon each. Ten days later on January 23, 2015, BNSF notified Ecology of the incident by BNSF, making the same claim that that oil evaporated during transit and there was no indication that oil had reached the ground or water during transit.

Because Ecology was unable to verify spilled oil on land or water in these incidents, they are unable to penalize the railway for spills.

Reason for Concern

Given the pattern of obfuscation and secrecy in BNSF’s reporting habits, there is plenty of reason to question the wisdom of letting the railroad haul crude oil. If the Magnolia derailment had led to a spill or fire as it easily might have, the railway’s delay would have cost valuable time and put many lives at risk.

In March 2015, the Washington Fire Chiefs demanded a plan from the railroad, along with much more information about oil train movements in the state. Given the propensity of these trains to spill and to occasionally erupt into infernos, allowing BNSF’s bad habits to persist may mean that we won’t find out about the next incident until it’s too late.

Federal budget bill sets January deadline on safety rules for oil tanker cars

Repost from The Seattle Post Intelligencer (seattlepi.com)

Federal budget bill sets January deadline on safety rules for oil tanker cars

December 10, 2014 | By Joel Connelly
Tanker cars from a derailed CSX oil train burn after derailing in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia, last April. Increasing numbers of oil trains pass through Seattle and other Puget Sound cities en route to four refineries on northern Puget Sound. (AP Photo/City of Lynchburg, LuAnn Hunt)

Hidden away in Congress’ big spending bill, designed to fund the federal government through FY 2015, are stern marching orders to the U.S. Department of Transportation:

Deliver a final rule for new, safer oil tank car design standards by Jan. 15, 2015, and require that all rail carriers put in place comprehensive oil spill response plans.

The budget provisions, inserted by Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, are prompted by an oil train disaster in Quebec, and the rapid increase in trains carrying volatile Bakken crude oil from North Dakota to four refineries on northern Puget Sound.

“In Washington state, we’ve seen a startling increase in oil train traffic through communities of all sizes, from downtown Seattle to smaller, rural communities across the state,” said Murray, who has chaired the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on transportation.

“That’s why I worked to set a deadline for the Department of Transportation to issue new safety standards for tank cars next month and worked to fund a Shirt Line Railroad Safety Institute that will help protect smaller communities without sufficient resources to respond to oil trains.”

Oil tanker cars derailed under the Magnolia Bridge.  No harm done, but not the case elsewhere.

An old adage applies to the oil train issue: There’s nothing like a hanging in the morning to focus the mind.

In July of 2013, brakes failed and an unmanned runaway train sped into the small town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, just over the border from Maine. It blew up, killing 47 people and leveling downtown.

The train was using 1960′s-designed DOT-111 tank cars. Another train, using DOT-111 cars, exploded into mushroom-cloud flames last December outside Casselton, N.D.. It forced evacuation of more than 2,000 people from the small town.

While promising new safety measures, the Department of Transportation has been criticized for giving railroads too much wiggle room.

The DOT said last summer it is setting a two-year deadline for getting DOT-111 tank cars off the rails. In reading the fine print, however, the clock would begin ticking in September of 2015 — giving rail carriers more than three years to stop use of the explosion-prone tank cars.

The federal budget bill would make available $10 million in grants to improve safety at railroad grade crossings that handle crude oil or other hazardous flammable liquids.

The DOT gets resources to hire 15 new hazardous-materials and rail-safety inspectors and $3 million to expand the use of automated track inspections to make sure rail tracks are maintained on crude oil transportation routes.

In this Aug. 8, 2012 photo, a DOT-111 rail tanker passes through Council Bluffs, Iowa. DOT-111 rail cars being used to ship crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken region are an "unacceptable public risk," and even cars voluntarily upgraded by the industry may not be sufficient, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2014. The cars were involved in derailments of oil trains in Casselton, N.D., and Lac-Megantic, Quebec, just across the U.S. border, NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said at a House Transportation subcommittee hearing. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)

Refiners and shippers have responded.

Tesoro has stopped use of DOT-111 tank cars to supply its Anacortes refinery. The Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad has announced a purchase of new, safer tank cars.

But the railroads have continued to resist making full, up-to-date information on oil shipments available to state and local emergency responders. They are fearful the information will be made public.

While Murray is touting its oil train provisions, the $1.1 trillion spending bill has drawn some fire from the political left.

Republicans have secured concessions, loosening Wall Street regulation and letting wealthy donors give more to political campaigns. The bill has slightly weakened school lunch nutrition standards championed by first lady Michelle Obama.

Liberal Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., is voting against the bill.

“It is inconceivable that Congress would cut crucial regulations in the Dodd-Frank Act, when risky derivatives trading was at the center of the 2008 financial crisis,” said McDermott.

“Why is Congress giving Wall Street a massive Christmas present, when so many hard-working Americans are struggling to make ends meet?”